An Ex-Pat Yankee News Junkie’s Antidote For American Myopia
My fellow Americans, I come in peace and I speak from experience, your news media diet is making you sick. Here’s how to improve it.
When I moved to Japan from the Seattle area in July 2004, I was a 31-year-old news junkie and I had to get out of America.
Like now, post-9/11 America was a heavy time filled with lies and mistruths, many of them coming from the Bush Administration and then spread throughout most of the media.
As a journalism and political science major in college, I spent way too much time consuming, and being consumed by, media. From watching the nightly network news shows and the Sunday talk shows like “Meet the Press” and then perusing liberal alternative news websites like Common Dreams to dig deeper, I gave a lot of my attention to the news media.
In the daytime at my job at a used bookstore, I’d package books to mail while listening to right-wing radio talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Dennis Prager. My boss would often ask me why I gave my attention to such drivel.
“Shit works better than coffee,” I’d answer, my indignation against Limbaugh and Prager’s diatribes supporting things like the war against Iraq fueling the flow of righteous anger through my progressive veins.
Looking back on those days now, I realize that all that media consumption was, quite simply, driving me mad.
Fortunately, the woman who became my wife entered my life in winter 2002 and, to woo her to marrying a nutcase like me, I had to move to her country, Japan.
I’m not sure I’ve done enough to thank her for providing me an escape plan.
Even Though I’m Far Away in Geography, I’m With You All in Spirit
Before I go on, I want to be clear about something: I can understand the tenseness those of you in America are feeling right now. In fact, as the reality of the Covid-19 crisis and the protests for racial justice swept America early last summer, feeling into the intensity of the American experience caused me to drastically reduce commenting about it.
That was a big change from the plan I’d had going into the year: I was going to quit my 16-year job as a public school teacher, fly to the U.S. in early April and take a six-week cross-country train trip and write my version of John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, a book he wrote to re-discover America after living as an ex-pat in Europe.
You see, I had this intuition in fall 2019 that 2020 was going to be a historic year for America and, while I knew that intuition was partly because of the presidential election, something told me it was deeper than that. No, I didn’t predict a pandemic, but I can’t say I was surprised when it happened. (Such is the mysterious nature of intuition, but I digress).
The point is, I don’t want any of my pondering about my native land to contribute to your sense of how challenging your reality is. That wouldn’t be fair when I can simply turn off my devices and go meditate in a rice paddy.
So I’m writing this from a place of concern and recognition that yeah, life in America in the 2020s so far has been, to put it perhaps too mildly, a fucking shit show.
But hey, out of shit grows some pretty darn amazing magic mushrooms, so maybe there’s a Purpose for all of this? Or maybe that’s just my hippie self being hopeful again.
Can You Laugh With Me a Little?
I’m being deadly serious with that question.
I’ve had issues with addiction, depression and bipolar condition so I know those states of mind where the answer to that question is: No, I can’t laugh and please don’t make me feel worse by asking if I can. If that’s where you’re at, I get it and I’m sorry. I hope you feel better soon.
But I kind of doubt you are in that place because when I was there, the last thing I would have done is read an article like this for this long. So let me take a chance and guess that your answer is, “Yes, despite how low I’m feeling about things, I can still laugh with you a little.”
Good. Now, ask yourself: Are there things you can do right now to allow yourself more opportunities for laughter? More opportunities to just have some fun?
For example, I bet you have some favorite comedians or a favorite comedy movie or TV show. So I’m the nice teacher who has just given you a permission slip that reads: “Watch some comedy, dammit!”
In the fine print, it says, “when you finish this article, instead of then doom-scrolling the news, feel free to watch something that makes you laugh.”
Or how about this? If you have kids or a pet, do something fun with them, or even if you don’t have kids or a pet, do something playful that connects you to that Inner Child who has likely been asking you in 2020 to be allowed out of its cage. “Let me play a bit!” it says as it jumps up and down and pulls on your sleeve! “Let’s play a board game, skip some stones on a lake, jump some ropes, bound through some hopscotch, dump a bucket of ice water over our heads — I don’t know, I’m spit-balling here — just let’s do something silly for the fun of it! Come on! What have we got to lose?”
Don’t worry, the news will still be here when you get back.
Ah, the News, the Dreadful News
Yes, this next segment is dreadful. Positively dreadful. I recommend listening to something that manages to be both melancholic and uplifting, such as this tune below.
Okay, with the lovely, wistful sound of the late Jerry Garcia singing and playing guitar, the melodic bass of John Kahn and the steady drumming of Bill Vitt keeping things real and the heavenly organs of Merl Saunders lifting you up, let me tell you about my experience of “The Storming of the Capitol.”
January 6, 2021, or, for me, very early January 7th because for some reason I woke up at 3 a.m.
I was up for an hour or so when I had an intuition to tune into the news. For some reason, I found some live streams on YouTube of mainstream stations like CNN and NBC. I can’t remember the last time I watched one of those stations.
In recent years, I’ve usually watched things like the presidential debates on non-mainstream outlets like The Hill’s Rising or even through private live streams such as the hosts of the Useful Idiots Podcast, Matt Taibbi and Katie Halper because when those two cover political events, they often have drinking contests to help us all get through the drudgery.
Anyway, as I watched the mainstream perspective of January 6th, I noticed I was getting a lot more pissed about things than I usually get. And what was the one word that was bouncing like a drum underneath it that was triggering me — trump, Trump, TRump, TRUmp, TRUMp, TRUMP!!
Yes, even with the broadcast in that background that name kept coming up and underneath it was this message: Trump’s to blame, hate Trump, Trump’s to blame, HATE Trump, Trump’s to blame, HATE TRUMP!
I could consciously feel how I was being manipulated into an emotional reaction yet still I went along with it, taking to social media and letting some of my anger — and yes, hatred — fly.
And if I’m honest, it didn’t feel all that bad. No, it kinda felt good. Ah, the old self-righteous anger — Fuck you, Limbaugh!! — how I’ve missed thee!.
No. I’m different now. I don’t feel hatred very much anymore. Usually, I feel sadness for the tragedy of the human experience. It’s expressed in the Kurt Vonnegut line, “so it goes.”
I see Trump acting like a buffoon, or one of his supporters being riled into action and even killing someone and I think, sadly, so it goes.
I think because of this, because I know no longer feel the emotional need to vent at “the other side,” I’ve been able to build on my personality as a social chameleon and a bridge builder to create a Facebook page that has friends with many perspectives. It makes for some pretty interesting conversations.
For the past few years, however, even though I come out of the Left, when I have been at odds with people it’s more often been with my fellow Lefties. Thing is, I felt in 2016 that one of the reasons Trump won was because the Left, represented by the Democrats and Obama, have a fair amount of unexamined ideas that have harmed the majority of those who identify as being on the Right.
In addition, even in 2016 Trump was a historically unpopular candidate and yet somehow the Democrats ran someone who was almost as unpopular and managed to lose. Thus, I felt like the Left had some questions to answer and implored my Leftist friends to join me in making the Trump era a time when we’d engage in some deep self-reflection, rather than getting caught up in the self-righteous anger that the day-to-day news events were likely to inspire.
I wanted us to ask why millions of people voted for and still support Trump (and not answer simply: They are all racists! They aren’t. Just as all Leftists aren’t all communists.).
But on that morning of (my) January 7th, I couldn’t help but go after my friends on the Right. I tried to convince them that it was time for them to jump off the Trump train, that he doesn’t care about them, that he’s just a selfish guy conning them, etc., etc.
It got me (and them) nowhere but angry and I ended up slamming my laptop shut and, yes, finding a rice paddy to meditate in. (I’m just gonna let you keep imaging that I actually meditate in such a place, ha ha, since after all, Japan is a land that only has rice paddles, temples and bullet trains. Oh, and businessmen eating sushi out of cardboard boxes on those trains. Yes, that’s all there is to it. Yes, I do enjoy poking fun at cultural stereotypes).
The Promised Antidotes to the Madness
Why did I go to such lengths to share this with you?
Because the crystal clear lesson I took from this experience was:
Your media, no matter what tribe you belong to, is emotionally manipulating you. Turn it off.
If there’s one thing I hope this post will convince you to do, it’s that.
But no, I don’t want you to stop there. Because I have what I think is an even better idea: After you turn off your media and meditate in your version of a stereotypical rice paddy, next time you check in on the news, tune into a media outlet that is coming from a tribe you don’t belong to.
If you’re on the Left, check out Breitbart. If you’re on the Right, head over to Alternet. Those are two that just came to the top of my head. Both are unapologetically speaking from their side of the aisle and both have, in their own way, broadened my perspective on things over the years.
I heard this idea from a man who is becoming one of my favorite thinkers in this field of what he calls Sensemaking. His name is Daniel Schmactenberger and he’s been a part of a series called “The War on Sensemaking” on the Rebel Wisdom YouTube Channel. It is extremely thought-provoking and I’d especially recommend the fifth episode, which I’ve linked below.
You see, what I perceive happening from over here is that the real war going on in your country is not so much on the ground, but in the air. It’s a cognitive war, a war between tribes and it’s being waged in, and by, the media.
So one of the best antidotes is to broaden your media intake and when you do that, watch your emotional reactions. Again, in all seriousness, I recommend taking up some sort of calming practice like meditation and perhaps do it before you dive into these other sites. That will ground you and allow you to more ably bear witness to your emotions as you take in perspectives that may trigger you. These should be perspectives on issues and events that you’ve also watched on your usual media of choice. Doing this will help you better see how media outlets are constructing narratives to make sense of these events.
As you do this, tell your thinking mind it can take a little vacation and take in the information as Stoically as possible. In other words, you are not required to react. Just witness.
After you do this exercise, you might find you want to stretch out even further. Perhaps go into the comments sections of these sites and see how well you can “listen” to their perspective without judgment. Maybe even click on links people share. Have at it, let yourself go wild! Go down the rabbit holes without judgment, knowing you can always do the old trick I did on January 7th:
The Frustrated Computer Slam (followed by the Centering Rice Paddy Meditation Technique, of course).
Broaden Your Perspective Beyond America
Now, when I started this essay I was struggling to come up with some concrete ideas that might be useful to you. And so all I gave you was a rather long tip about changing your media consumption habits.
Yes, we both expected more out of me, didn’t we? Oh, well, all I can do is say I tried.
In all seriousness, I hope this was helpful. Before I go, I’ll leave you with one more thing you can do:
Don’t simply broaden the media outlets you consume, broaden the topics you consider. And in this case, what I mean is: if you must read about current events, read about events happening outside of America.
Now, as is often the case, when I give advice in posts like this, it’s disguised advice I am giving myself. You see, I do this but not nearly enough. America is just such a fascinating place and this is, indeed, a rather momentous, epoch-changing period in its history. I think we all know that.
Still, amazing, crazy events are happening around the world and have even happened in the past few years and, because of our focus on our own country, we don’t know about them. Their gift to us is when we take in media about them, we can do so with more detachment than we do with American news and we can discover appreciation that America is not alone in its craziness. Also, in its hope for something better.
For example, were you aware that in late November, possibly the largest public strike in world history took place in India? 250 million people!?! They were seeking things like direct cash transfers to help the poor, grain rations to all in need, enhanced wages, and an end to the privatization of public sector corporations, including those in the financial sector. Sounds like some solid demands to me!
(A peek behind the curtain: I had to look up how many million people and what they were protesting because I only knew a tiny bit about this!)
Or that in 2016-2017 when we Yanks were all obsessed over the fact that Donald Trump was going to be president, there was this thing called the Candlelight Revolution in South Korea. This historic event led to an impeachment of their president and saw such moments as a man using an excavator to crash into the front entrance of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office building during a protest in Seoul and had rallies that were estimated to have over 2 million people attend! Again, I had to look up most of the information in that paragraph.
But I knew just enough by having a broad media diet (and friends from all over the world via social media) and so all it took to learn and share about those things were a few simple hops on the Web.
Question: did you ever hear about either of these things on mainstream news outlets? Perhaps you did. But my guess is probably not.
In part, that’s because news focuses on events in its own country. In addition, I’d suggest it’s because one of the less savory aspects of the American character is its narcissism. And I’d also argue that no era in modern American history has been as narcissistic as the Trump Era (from the top on down!).
The point is when things outside your door see dismal, with the Internet, you always have the opportunity to expand beyond the US and see that, well, at least you aren’t alone! At least other people are going through their own struggles and finding their own solutions.
Perhaps by realizing this you’ll feel like you have some brothers in arms around the world, you’ll feel some connection to the human family and that you’ve found an antidote to your hopelessness. And you’ll at least have spent some time on news topics that don’t have media outlets that seek to force you into taking a side. I have a feeling that experience will come as a relief to you because it has for me.
At least, that’s my hope.
Thanks for reading! You can support me simply by sharing my stuff, by linking to me on Twitter, by checking out my old blog, by listening to my podcast, The B&P Realm Podcast, or by reading my 2015 novel, “The Teacher and the Tree Man.” You can also find that book in full here, or you can find it broken down into four shorter books (book 1, book 2, book 3 and book 4).